Tuesday, July 31, 2012

10 Fun and Easy Summer Activities with Kids

The end of summer is coming all too soon. Make the most of the season and help your kids connect with nature with these simple, free or low-cost activities, suggested by AMC authors, parents, and naturalists.

1. Take an ice cube bath. When it’s too hot to move, bring a bowl of ice cubes outside and take turns melting them on your bodies. Which tickles more, behind the neck or behind the knee?

2. Pick your own berries. Visit a local farm and try to put more in your pail than you eat. If you’ve missed berry season, make plans for pumpkins and apples.

3. Watch the Perseid meteor showers. This annual summer spike in the number of “shooting stars” in the sky is expected to be most visible in the United States August 11 and 12. (Read more about the Perseids in this post.)

4. Study the seashore. Bring a guidebook like AMC’s Seashells in My Pocket to the beach and see what you can identify in the sand, water, and tidal pools.

5. Try “watercolor” sidewalk and body painting. On rainy days, chunky colored sidewalk chalk and bathtub crayons take on new dimensions outdoors, and can be fun even for older kids. Try creating watercolors on the sidewalk, or body art with the crayons, and have fun getting wet.

6. Make mud. Bring a pail of water to your backyard (or any area it’s OK to disturb) and build miniature dams, canals, mudworks, and mud castles. Use a few cups of different sizes, a shovel, and a funnel.

7. Take a hike. Remember to bring plenty of snacks and water, and look for payoffs like waterfalls or swimming holes.

8. Camp at home. Set up a tent in the backyard or in the living room! Let the kids invite friends over, take turns telling stories, and make s’mores (the marshmallows can be “raw”).

9. Play landscape painter for the day. Set up an easel and paints outdoors, or bring paper and colored pencils, and try to capture what you see (or convey the feeling with colors and shapes—don’t worry if you can’t draw).

10. Walk a block. After dinner, head out for a short family walk around your neighborhood. What signs of life do you see?

Do you have other suggestions for fun and easy outdoor activities with kids? Please share them in the comments.

Learn More

For other simple outdoor activities with kids, see these previous posts:
Photo of a young girl hunting for crabs on Bound Brook Island, Cape Cod National Seashore, in Wellfleet, Mass., by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Q&A: Can Outdoor Nation's Young Leaders Get More Americans Outside?

About 100 young people camped out on Georges Island, one of Boston’s Harbor Islands, last weekend. Their purpose was bigger than just a fun night under the stars; these campers were part of Outdoor Nation, a three-year-old national group that works to increase youth participation in the outdoors. The Boston “signature summit,” which drew a total of 140 participants and followed similar gatherings in Los Angeles and Austin earlier this summer, consisted of two days of brainstorming sessions and project planning meetings, as well as some time kicking back in tents.

Kelly Greenwood, a summer intern at AMC Outdoors and AMC Books, was there. I asked her about what she learned.

Who attended the summit and why?
Teenagers and young adults ages 16-26. Along with 20 AMC staff and interns, groups from the Student Conservation Association, Virginia State Parks, Leave No Trace, high schools, and other youth groups across the East Coast were represented. Although most participants came with a group or organization, many individuals showed up on their own. The group leader of the project that won the most grant money was a guy who had never heard of Outdoor Nation until the day of the event. He had been walking by, which sparked an interest in what we were doing; he joined in and won $2,500 toward seeing his project become a reality.

Everyone there shared one common goal: to identify the problems keeping Americans from enjoying the outdoors, and to come up with solutions. Each group presented a project they had thought up and developed over the weekend that they believed would help get their communities more involved in outdoor activities, and the top 10 projects were awarded seed grants to get their ideas rolling.

What was it like?
The summit was part conference and part camping trip. The conference aspects were still relatively informal, with discussions and “think-tanks” dominating the time, intermixed with fun quizzes and speeches. It was a very high-energy event, and although we were working hard from breakfast to dinner, it was still a relaxed environment where we could share ideas and discuss issues. As for the camping, it felt like your typical weekend camping trip, plus 100 extra people. There were tents, a campfire, and even ghost stories, allowing everyone to get to know each other and build relationships. Thankfully there were no interactions with the Lady in Black, the ghost of Georges Island.

What did you learn from the weekend? What surprised you the most?
It was eye-opening to realize just how removed many of the participants feel from nature. While I have grown up lucky enough to be close to wilderness, most of the participants were from urban environments or were minorities, and 80 percent of minority youth do not participate in outdoor recreation, according to one speaker at the event. It shocked me to learn how many young people do not even have access to safe and clean neighborhood parks, let alone forests.

One goal of the summit was to vote on the best ideas for projects that Outdoor Nation could fund to get Americans outdoors. What were some of the most interesting ideas you heard? How did the voting work?
The most interesting idea I heard was called Spreading Roots. This project plans to have college students mentor high school students, who in turn will mentor middle school students, getting an entire community involved not just in outdoor recreation but leadership. It allows for a student to stay with the program for many years, but to still advance.

The voting was done electronically with a keypad that each participant was given at the beginning of the summit. The voting was broken down into five categories, ranging from “how likely is this project to succeed” to “how effective is the project in meeting the goals of Outdoor Nation.” We rated the 17 projects in each category on a scale from 1-10, and the eight projects with the highest overall ratings won (it turned out to be 10 projects because of a tie). The first place project won $2,500, the second place project won $1,500, and the next five won $1,000 each. This year, there was a three-way tie for eighth place, so Outdoor Nation gave each of those projects $750.

AMC members split into three groups and came up with three distinct projects, two of which won $1,000 grants. One of the winning projects was College Outdoor Mixer, which proposed a race through the parks in Boston for college students. The race, which will also be part scavenger hunt, will introduce college students in Boston (a huge number!) to the parks available to them.

I was part of a group of eight Boston staff and interns that proposed a project called Boston Is Outdoors, which also won $1,000. Our project is an 8-week series of walks through Boston’s green spaces, led by two young staff members. The idea is that anyone can participate, although the target network is young professionals looking to build a network of outdoor-oriented peers. One week will also feature a more challenging option, like kayaking the Charles, all for free.

Where does the money for Outdoor Nation come from?

The Conservation Fund, The North Face, and REI Foundation are the three biggest partners of Outdoor Nation, but they have many other partners who offer support. AMC was a partner for the Boston event.

What’s your favorite idea for getting more young people actively involved in the outdoors?

The project that earned the highest rating, Get Out and Stay Out, will pair five mentors with five high school students to teach them outdoor skills, recreation, and leadership. Instead of just taking kids outside, this program will teach them how to enjoy the outdoors on their own, and to lead others in the same manner. I liked this idea in particular because it is built on the belief that everyone should be able to have the opportunity to get outside, no matter what their background, experience, or age.

I also really liked the Deals for Wheels project, which plans to partner with local businesses to get discounts for customers who use active transportation, like bicycles. The project will not only promote getting active and reducing our transportation impact, but foster community relations and support of small local business. For such a simple concept, it has a huge impact.

Do you think the projects will succeed?

Given how determined many of the groups were to see their projects become a reality, I believe many will succeed. Outdoor Nation offers them support that goes beyond grant money, to help them get their projects off the ground after the Summit. The network created by Outdoor Nation also connects young people, foundations, and businesses with the same goals.

Learn More

In addition to gatherings like that in Boston this summer, Outdoor Nation offers intensive leadership training summits and will convene an invitation-only “National Congress” in Washington, DC, in late August.

To read about other projects Outdoor Nation has funded, check out this 2011 blog post:
“‘Take Congress Camping’: Ideas from Outdoor Nation.”

Photos, which show Kelly Greenwood on the Boston Harbor Island ferry and part of the Outdoor Nation group, by Cormac Griffin.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Riddles to Hike By: Mysteries that Keep Kids on the Trail

A man in a scuba suit is found dead in a forest. What happened?

I recently found myself trying to solve this puzzle while riding in a van driven by Joanna Lemmon, who works with AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program (YOP). We were on a trip with some colleagues, who immediately rose to the bait when Joanna posed the question.

“Was he murdered?” someone asked. “Was he poisoned?”

“Did he walk there?”

“Is it important that this is in a forest?”

Joanna answered simply “yes” or “no,” and we forgot about traffic for a few minutes as we asked more and more questions, trying to figure out the backstory.

Our response was just what Joanna has come to expect. As YOP’s youth adventures and logistics coordinator, she regularly uses mysteries and riddles to entertain and challenge young people on trips she leads.

“Most youth really get into the riddles, particularly when a few of the kids start to figure them out,” she told me later. “The group starts to get competitive and the ones that think they have figured out the riddle try to be 'helpful' without giving it away.”

I experienced the same thing years ago when I led trips with Project U.S.E. (Urban Suburban Environments) in New Jersey. I often distracted reluctant teenage hikers from their complaints about aching muscles or heavy loads by posing elaborate riddles that I had learned from other hike leaders, who knew that solving puzzles together provides great trail entertainment.

Joanna and the rest of the YOP staff have many favorites that were passed down from one leader to another in similar fashion, but they also keep several books in their Joy Street office that offer additional challenges. Two of their favorites are Five-Minute Mysteries and More Five-Minute Mysteries by Ken Weber, a prolific author who has written at least four other titles in the series. Similar books and websites also present puzzles that mix elements of the traditional whodunit (such as physical clues and red herrings) with logical challenges and even a little math.

Joanna also recommends simpler trivia, like the hiking ABCs game, in which each person must name an object in a category starting with the next letter in the alphabet. For example, if you choose the category “musicians,“ the first hiker names a performer whose name starts with A, the second hiker a performer whose name starts with B, and so forth, until you get to Z, and then choose another topic.

“I typically use riddles in the car to pass the time or, more importantly, on the trail when the group is feeling fatigued, in order to keep their minds preoccupied,” Joanna said. When hiking, “this is designed to engage the group and to get them to hike together so that they can hear the next person in line. It usually works pretty well.“

If you’re looking for a way to exercise your children’s minds while exercising their muscles, these sorts of puzzles may be just the thing. And if you’re still trying to figure out what happened to the man in the scuba suit, here are Joanna’s answers to those first four questions: No (said in a “well, not technically” sort of tone). No. No. And a strong Yes.

Learn More
For more ideas to keep kids entertained, see the following:

Illustration by iStock.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Preparing Kids to Take (Reasonable) Risks in the Outdoors

Helicopter parents who hover over their kids are easy to caricature. But every parent makes decisions every day that affect children’s safety, and those judgment calls aren’t always easy. Is your child ready to handle a sharp knife? Will you let her bike around the neighborhood alone? How about allowing him and his friends to go hiking without a parent trailing behind? And that whitewater rafting trip for a friend’s birthday—is it a good idea?

Kristen Laine, who used to write regularly for this blog, recently talked with Gever Tulley, co-author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), about some of these questions. The resulting article, “Knives, Axes, and Spears: Playing with sharp objects and other ‘dangerous’ ideas for kids,” got me thinking about other views on balancing safety and exploration, and preparing children to take appropriate risks. Here are a few pieces that have helped shape my thinking on the subject.

  • The Blessing of a Broken Arm?” in which Kristen Laine reflects on an injury her son sustains while bicycling, and the notion that “a parent’s duty is not to protect children from every conceivable situation where they might get hurt, but to let kids take reasonable risks and learn from the consequences.”
  • Five lessons about risk that were drawn from teaching teens whitewater paddling but can apply off the water, too.
Photo courtesy of Kristen Laine.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Should I Eat the Fish I Caught?: A Kid's Game with A Serious Message

Back in the day, we didn’t think twice before eating a trout caught on a camping trip. But pollutants that permeate our environment collect in the bodies of fish, making some of them dangerous to eat, particularly for children and pregnant women.

To keep brain-damaging mercury and cancer-causing PCBs out of your camp cooking, check fish advisories for the waters in which you are casting. And to teach your children the sobering lesson of how often it’s safe to eat different types of fish, turn to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Fish Kids page.

There you can find a simple matching game that helps players learn to recognize different types of fish they might encounter on a camping trip, sport fishing trip, or shopping trip. For example, the camping trip cards feature images of brown trout, bluegill, northern pike, and other fish you might catch.

The site also offers an online fishing game, in which the player must catch a certain number of fish that a posted advisory says are safe to eat before the time runs out. The colorful interface lets you dangle a line (using a computer mouse for simple controls) to try to catch bluegill, yellow perch, and salmon (OK to eat twice a week) and warmouth, rainbow trout, and black crappie (OK to eat once a week), while avoiding the fish that you shouldn’t eat because of their high levels of mercury or PCBs. The game is pretty simple, but the format might catch your child’s interest—and help your child learn—better than a plain educational statement would.

If you lead groups that go fishing, run a camp, or serve as a health educator, you might also be interested in the EPA’s free informational resources, including “Should I Eat the Fish I Catch?” and “What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish And Shellfish” brochures (in multiple languages), magnets and keychains with information about fish and health, and “One Fish, Two Fish, Don’t Fish, Do Fish” posters.

Of course, throwing contaminated fish back into polluted lakes and rivers isn’t enough. If you want to do more to protect your own family and others from pollutants, think beyond your individual decisions while fishing or shopping, and support conservation groups and others who are advocating for clean air, clean water, and safe food.

Photo from iStock; poster image from the EPA

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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